Republican lawmakers in the Texas Senate were sitting pretty last year.
For years, the GOP had faced roadblocks to passing some conservative measures by the chamber’s two-thirds rule, which normally required the support of 21 members to get a bill to the floor. With 20 Republicans in the chamber, that left Republicans one short of moving out bills without the help of a single Democrat.
But then in 2015, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led a successful move to lower the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths. Suddenly, any measure with the backing of all of the chamber’s Republicans had all the support it needed. For that session and the ones that followed in 2017, the GOP effectively ran the Senate floor.
Now, with less than two months until Election Day, Republicans are finding that keeping that supermajority in the Texas Senate is no longer a sure thing.
“We’re emphasizing the possibility of losses,” said Darl Easton, the Republican Party Chairman in Tarrant County, where state Sen. Konni Burton's re-election bid is seen as a potential toss-up. “The more complacent you become, the more likely it is that you won’t win. We definitely have to keep the voters alert to the possibility of losing some seats. We’re not going to take anything for granted.”
“We are working and making sure we’re leaving no stone unturned,” added Missy Shorey, the Dallas County Republican Party chairwoman, speaking of the party’s efforts in assisting state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “People in Dallas certainly know there’s no chance that seat is going to flip. [Huffines] is working for every vote out there.”
The Senate is still poised to remain GOP-dominated during next year’s legislative session. What’s at stake for the chamber’s Republicans this election cycle is losing their three-fifths majority — the crucial threshold for bringing legislation to the Senate floor without any support from Democrats.
In this year’s general election, three Republican-held seats are potentially in play — including two in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In one of the three Senate districts, more voters backed Democrat Hillary Clinton than Republican Donald Trump in 2016. In the other two districts, the president’s winning margin was so small, some wonder if they could flip to Democrats in a year when that party appears to have the momentum.
Those three seats are held by Burton of Colleyville, Huffines and Joan Huffman of Houston. Burton, who did not respond to a request for comment, is the only one that will have to navigate a historically competitive general election. In 2014, Burton flipped the seat from a Democrat with a little more than 52 percent of the vote. Two years later, Trump beat Clinton in the district by only half a percentage point.
In Huffman’s district, Trump won by a skinny 0.9 percentage point, while Huffines is running in a district where Clinton edged Trump by 4.6 percentage points.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to win. Second place in politics is last place,” said Huffines, whose facing a challenge from Democrat Nathan Johnson this fall. “Look, we’ve got challenges ahead of us. We’ve got issues and challenges that we’re going to work on, but we’re going to deliver solutions too. Everything is not perfect, but we’re going to continue to focus on making sure Texas is better for everybody.”
Balance of power
If at least two of those three Republicans lose their seats this election cycle, the political repercussions could be far-reaching: not only would it loosen Patrick’s stronghold over the upper chamber, Republican senators themselves would have to work across the aisle to get their bills passed.
“When you have to cross the aisle, you have to cross the river and that changes everything,” said Bill Miller, a veteran political consultant and lobbyist. “If [Dan Patrick] were to lose that three-fifths majority, his power would be diminished. That doesn’t mean he won’t be powerful, but he won’t be the most powerful person to ever hold the office — which is what he’s been up to this point.”
“If you haven’t had any power in a while and I give you power, it’s going to be tasty," he added. "It’s a tasty morsel. If Democrats get back at the table, that will change how the Senate behaves."
What’s also at risk is the ability to get conservative legislation to the governor. Without a Republican Senate supermajority, Easton said, measures important to hard-line conservatives might not get a hearing in the Texas House — let alone be brought up for debate on the Senate floor.
“Obviously, it’s going to be harder to get conservative stuff through the Senate if we don’t have the numbers, and if we don’t get it through the Senate then the House doesn’t even have to look at it,” Easton said. “It’s politics as usual. The stronger your base is, the more likely it is you’re going to get stuff through the House and eventually to the governor’s desk.”
Miller agreed, adding that Republicans in the Senate might have reason to worry.
“In recent cycles, Republicans have looked at every election cycle as just a reaffirmation of their dominance, and that has absolutely been the case,” he said. “This is the first time in memory where not only is that dominance in question, but there’s a high degree of confidence on the part of Democrats. So it’s a whole new world out there.”
Even before the midterms in November, there’s a special election next week that will impact the balance of power in the Texas Senate. Republican Pete Flores and Democrat Pete Gallego are in a runoff to replace Democratic state Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio, who resigned after being found guilty of 11 felonies including securities fraud and money laundering. The state’s top Republicans, including U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Gov. Greg Abbott and Patrick are rallying behind Flores.
"Though Democrats have held this seat for decades, Pete has brought a common-sense conservative message to this sprawling, 18-county district and voters are responding with a big thumbs-up," Patrick said in a July statement. "Democrats believe they own this State Senate seat and their candidates are engaged in a ruthless, left-wing cage match to keep it."
A dispute over another Democratic-held Senate seat could also impact the GOP supermajority next session. In late July, Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who is widely expected to win her bid for an open Congress seat in November, submitted a letter to Abbott declaring her "intent to resign" and asked that he hold a special election to replace her for Nov. 6, the next uniform election date. This led to a back and forth between her and the governor’s office over whether her letter qualified as an actual resignation. The issue has yet to be resolved but could ultimately lead to Abbott delaying the special election to replace Garcia long enough that her seat is empty at the start of next session in January.
“If you look at how [Republicans] are behaving, that tells us everything we need to know. They’ve not setting the Garcia special election, and the governor and lieutenant governor have gone all in for Peter Flores in Senate District 19,” said Colin Strother, a longtime Democratic strategist in Texas. “Why? Because they know they need seats. Well, how do they know they need seats unless they’re expecting some of their incumbents to lose?”
The fight in North Texas
Burton, whose race is considered the most competitive state Senate race this year, has drawn the endorsements of Ted Cruz and his dad, Rafael. She recently released a digital ad where she tied her Democratic opponent, Beverly Powell, a former Burleson school district trustee, to Clinton.
Huffines, who is widely considered the second-most vulnerable Republican this cycle based on the district’s recent voting history, has been warning supporters about efforts by Democrats to flip the district.
"We must keep District 16 RED and protect our conservative majority in the State Senate!" Matt Langston, a spokesman with Huffines' campaign, wrote to supporters in an email that decried Democrats' targeting the district as "wolves in sheep's clothing."
With the two most competitive seats based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, leaders in both parties recognize that the size of a potential "blue wave" in North Texas could determine how those two races turn out.
“Of course the Democrats are energized and maybe as angry as I’ve ever seen. A lot of times when that happens, that drives people to the polls,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who’s endorsed Burton’s reelection. “The reason I don’t think that will translate into a ‘blue wave’ is because a lot of Republicans are also excited and want to ensure Texas maintains its status as a very red Republican state. I think you’re going to have both bases and both groups energized, and when that happens there’s not really a shift in the electorate.”
Johnson, Huffines' opponent, disagreed with the notion that Republican enthusiasm levels are anywhere near comparable to that among Democrats this cycle.
“If we flip even one seat, the means one Republican can break the supermajority,” Johnson said. “Of course there will be Republican enthusiasm this year … I just don’t think the controlling forces in the Republican party have anywhere near the enthusiasm they had in 2014.”
Powell pointed to both a backlash against Trump as well as fanfare surrounding U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke's bid against Cruz as re-energizing Democrats in Texas.
“All of us feel very encouraged by what we feel across the state, and I do particularly in our region,” Powell said. “I can tell you this: I believe people are starting to look for that common-sense leadership. For the leader who will reach across the aisle to collaborate with people of all stripes to find real solutions to real problems.”
On the money front, both Burton and Huffines, as well as Huffman, have outraised their opponents. Since the beginning of 2017, Burton reported raising more than $670,000 compared to Powell’s $501,000. During the same period, Huffines reported raising nearly $942,000 compared to Johnson’s $593,000. Huffman reported raising nearly $820,000 while her Democratic opponent, Rita Lucido, raised $190,000. (Lauren LaCount, the Libertarian running to unseat Huffman, raised roughly $4,600 during the same period).
Democrats still remain optimistic. Both candidates pointed to internal polls that suggest their races are close. A poll by Johnson’s campaign found Huffines leading Johnson by one percentage point. A separate poll from Powell’s campaign found her leading the Colleyville Republican among likely voters by 4 percentage points.
“I think a reasonable projection is for Democrats to pick up between one and three Senate seats,” Strother said. “It would be fitting if the very [three-fifths] rule Republicans set out to implement came back to bite them in the britches. It basically spells doom and gloom for the extremists on the right if we can add one to three — or even four seats — in the Texas Senate.”
Enthusiasm aside, Senate Republicans insist they’re not letting go of their supermajority without a fight.
“The Democrats certainly like to talk about [a blue wave]. I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Huffines said. “In fact, we’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen. We’re going to build a red wall up here to stop it.”